Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Going Away/Wanting to Stay

“Going away” is a common phrase here in rural Newfoundland. People here often leave for lengthy periods of time to work elsewhere. This is not a new phenomenon. During the nineteenth century, many people left their home harbours to work in the Labrador fishery, sealing or catching fish in that most rugged of locations. During the twentieth century, several men around here left to go work on the “lake boats” – cargo vessels hauling various commodities back and forth across the Great Lakes. Several local people still do that. And now, there is a great exodus of people who head West to work in the oil and gas and mining industries. If one goes on the websites of WestJet or Air Canada, he will find that it is possible to get a direct flight from St. John’s to Fort McMurray, Alberta. What is notable about many of these people is that they choose not to relocate permanently to the places where they earn the majority of their income. Instead, they maintain their homes here, with money earned far away.

It seems to me that many people go away so that they can stay in the places where they were born and raised, in their homes. It is probably also true that many of them simply don’t want to pay the higher price of living in other parts of the country, and find that they can stretch their incomes further by maintaining a permanent residence here. But certainly there are some people who simply cannot bear the thought of going away permanently. To go away is a means to an end, that end being the ability to stay in the places they call home.
From the living room of my host house in Keels. Photo: Kristin Catherwood

This is not merely one of my romantic visions, influenced by my own close attachment to the place where I was brought up. I witnessed it firsthand on my flight to Newfoundland (a direct flight from Calgary to St. John’s). The passengers were overwhelmingly Newfoundlanders, most young men, returning home from several weeks or months of working in Alberta. As the plane finally touched down on the runway of early morning St. John’s, the sense of happy homecoming was palpable in the stale air of the cramped airplane. Several people craned their necks  for a peek out the window, a glimpse of their home soil. I heard several comments like “feels good to be back” and “it feels like forever since I’ve been home.” In the airport terminal, there were many happy reunions, young couples embracing each other, fathers being accosted by their young children.  I couldn’t help but compare their happiness with my own sadness. I was coming to a foreign place, far from home. I wondered if how I felt was the way they felt on the other end of these cross-country trips, when they arrive out west for another stretch of work.

The folks who picked me up at the airport remarked upon the phenomena, commenting on how happy these people must be to be home. In my pre-KFS ignorance, I thought this practice of going far from home to work was a new one, something that had grown out of the collapse of the cod fishery and the booming of the oil industry in the west, developments that rather neatly coincided. But here in Keels, I’ve learned that “going away” is not new at all. Newfoundland families have long faced the reality of leaving home to find work. It does make one wonder: why not just move away? Why not leave permanently and find stable employment somewhere else? Some have, and do. But many choose not to. For them, some of them right here in Keels, this place is home, and there is no other like it.

A view of Keels from the west. Several people from Keels must go much further west to find work. Photo: Kristin Catherwood

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